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State files paint a picture of Newry and South Armagh in 1991

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

State files paint a picture of Newry and South Armagh in 1991 thumbnail PETER Brooke was the Northern Ireland Secretary in 1991.

IN 1991, Newry and south Armagh were very different places than they are today. Just how different is revealed in state files from that year released by the Public Records Office in Belfast.

Our man Colin O'Neill went to Belfast to have a look at some of the 602 files which have been deemed suitable for release as "fully open". A further 189 files are open, but are subject to blacking out of some content.

Ninety-four files remain closed in full, the bulk of which are individual prisoner files and Honours files...

In a report that was prepared that year for the then Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Brian Mawhinney, south Armagh was described as "a strongly Nationalist Area, currently referred to as 'Bandit Country', with major problems to be overcome if the security forces are to be widely acceptable".

And in a rather bleak analysis of the situation as regards acceptance of the UK government and of the relations between the two distinct communities in south Armagh, the report continued: "There are many local families whom it will be initially impossible to convince of government's good intentions. Much more effort is needed in developing economic policies and strengthening civil government.

"The small Protestant community is in decline, and ownership of land is a major sectarian issue in the area. There are few cross-community activities, although there are some encouraging signs of greater co-operation, especially in employment issues." Included in the papers is an extract from a speech that Brian Mawhinney gave to the Armagh Rotary club in December of that year.

In this, Mr Mawhinney said that he was not going to talk for long as his message was "short and simple".

"The terrorists are trying to intimidate the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"They are trying to frighten us - they are trying to terrorise us. They will not succeed.

"Bombs going off without warning, incendiary attacks, shootings, thuggery, none of this will win the day. For over 20 years, these tactics have been adopted by the paramilitaries and where has it got them? "Nowhere.

"The Government, and more importantly the people of this beautiful country are not going to be intimidated by such tactics. These criminals are not going to beat us or outlast us.

"They claim their actions derive from some political ideology. Our resolution derives from a stronger, more fundamental commitment to democratic principles." Also included in the papers is a letter from the Portadown District Synod of the Methodist Church in Ireland. The letter is addressed to the then Secretary of State Peter Brooke.

The letter said that at a recent meeting, "considerable concern was expressed about security in border areas in Northern Ireland." The secretary of the Synod detailed a recent incident in which an IRA checkpoint had been set up on the Dublin Belfast road, just inside the Northern Ireland border.

At that checkpoint, a police officer, accompanying some prison officers who had been on a fishing holiday in the south was abducted from a minibus and murdered.

"Our Synod took place in Warrenpoint Methodist Church, which is part of the Newry Circuit, right in the area in which this horrible incident took place," wrote the secretary.

"Some of our Methodist people have to live and work within this area and they are concerned that not even the main Dublin/Belfast road is safe, let alone the other side roads. This is a deplorable situation.

"We see one of the most important functions of Government is the protection of ordinary people going about their legitimate business.

"If proper security is not provided along the roads, the whole life of the community will grind to a halt in increasing anarchy.

"While we recognise that blanket security may not be possible, we feel the forces of the Government could be doing better so that ordinary people may live their lives without fear of violence or murder." Some statistics included in a report from the Social, Economic and Community Relations Aspects of Social Policy committee (SECRASP), detail that there were 17 non-criminal complaints against the Armed Forces during the period December 1 to December 31 1991. The monthly average of complaints for the year was 15. Of these 17 complaints, two were in south Armagh and six were in south Down. 12 of the complaints were against the regular army and five were against the UDR.

More generally, in a letter that passed between two members of the (SECRASP) committee, Nigel Hamilton wrote to another member, a Mr D Fell to tell him that he had spent "some considerable time" considering "Security Policy".

In this handwritten letter, Mr Hamilton noted that: "There is considerable frustration, that, despite all the security measures, the killers seem able to do what they want at will.

"Many people (including the thinkers), were appalled at the Chief Constable's comments that 'things are under control' and especially that 'there was less than one killing per day.

"Ordinary people feel somewhat helpless, but want to be told what to do to help." In summing up, Mr Hamilton said that the "important thing" was that the state take an "empathetic pro-active approach" and that it should not be "reactive in light of the recent event".

"We must all be seen to have a role to play, and there must be an overall strategy," he wrote.

"I am afraid that we still come across as disjointed in our approach, apologetic, and - worst of all - chasing around after each security incident."

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